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Moving pictures 2018, #52

I’ve not been chasing films from 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die the last couple of months, so the number of films I’ve seen from the list hasn’t changed for a few weeks. I’m not entirely sure I want to complete the list. After all, it’s “Before You Die”, which sort of suggests that if you do watch them all, well… Anyway, instead it’s the usual odd mix, including two recent films from Russia, both found on Amazon Prime, a pseudo-documentary from the 1930s, a Hungarian drama, some anime, and, well, I’m not entirely sure how to describe the last film – except, perhaps, that I loved it so much after watching the rental than I bought my own copy…

Tsar, Pavel Lungin (2009, Russia). Lungin is the director of the excellent The Island (2006), which seems to be the only film by him that’s been released on DVD in the UK (it’s currently deleted and searching for it by title on Amazon returns nothing; fortunately, I have a copy). Tsar I found on Amazon Prime, and judging by the subtitles, it’s a Russian release. I’ve found a number of Russian films on Amazon Prime, clearly from Russian distributors, from 1947’s Cinderella (see here) through Moscow Doesn’t Believe in Tears and Kin-dza-dza (both of which I already own on DVD) to Air Crew (see here) to Battle for Sevastopol (see here). The thing I remember from The Island is mostly slow cinema, beautifully-framed shots of the monastery at which the film was set. Tsar seems more traditionally framed as a Russian historical film, although there are definitely hints of Tarkovsky at times. The title refers to Ivan the Terrible – the film takes place between 1566 and 1569 – and he’s not so much terrible as completely bonkers and a total psychopath. He invites his friend, the abbot of a monastery on the Solovetsky Islands, and asks him to become Metropolitan of Moscow, ie, leader of the chief diocese of the Russian Orthodox church. The abbot initially refuses, but then agrees, hoping to temper Ivan’s cruelty. But he fails. Later, Ivan strips the Metropolitan of his rank and has him imprisoned in a monastery. This is no slow cinema. Like The Island, its story explores a clash between two views of religion; but it depicts a grim and brutal world, mostly closely-framed. And with a very convincing mise en scène. On the one hand, the tsar’s madness seems to be driven by a fear the world is about to end and the Last Judgement is imminent, and that’s why he’s instituted the oprichnina – culminating in the movie in Ivan being given a guided tour of a “torture camp”, where his enemies will be strapped to various death machines while people wander about enjoying the “spectacle”. Meanwhile, the ex-Metropolitan performs a miracle and escape his chains – and heals his jailer – but even as a saint, or even an ersatz Christ, he can’t cure the tsar of his madness, or prevail against him. Films like this are definitely two-handers. Pyotr Mamonov, who plays Ivan, is especially good, and the abbot, Oleg Yankovskiy, exudes an impressive quite dignity throughout. While Tsar didn’t grab me initially as much as The Island had done, perhaps because its setting isn’t as striking, it turned out to be engrossing. Much as I like Eisenstein’s Ivan the Terrible Part 1 and Ivan the Terrible Part 2 (the latter more, I think, than the former), they do feel a bit pantomime in comparison to Tsar. Recommended.

Lermontov, Maksim Bespalyy (2015, Russia). I’ve watched a film about a nineteenth-century Russian author before and ended up buying a book by said author, and after watching Lermontov I had a burning desire to read his most famous novel, A Hero of Our Time. Like Tsar, this is a Russian film I found on Amazon Prime, although it’s a made-for-TV movie so I don’t think it’s ever been released on DVD. It certainly hasn’t in this country. And yet it’s a good piece of work, telling Lermontov’s story with some clever use of graphics as intros to each new chapter of his life. It is all too easy, I’ve found, for Russian historical films to treat their subjects in much the same way the BBC does, relying on a good cast and well-dressed sets. This is not, of course, limited to either British or Russian historical dramas. Lermontov sticks mostly to this but rings a few changes inasmuch as it uses Lermontov’s own writings as a motif for graphics which advance the story, and also tries to marry together the stories of his poems and novels with the events in his life. It works really well. The graphics are cleverly done, and the interplay between fact and fiction prevents the film from becoming too dry. Lermontov, by all accounts, was privileged and arrogant, and like many talents of previous centuries whose works we continue to admire he seemed to create real art more by accident than design. He was convinced of his own superiority, so it’s no real surprise he died aged twenty-seven in a duel. Worth seeing.

Man of Aran, Robert J Flaherty (1934, Ireland). The Aran Islands are off the west coast of Ireland, just outside Galway Bay. Man of Aran purports to document the life of those who live on the islands. Although made in the 1930s, the life it depicts actually ended some fifty years earlier – leading many to dub the film “ethnofiction”, much like the documentaries of Jean Rouch. Which sort of makes you wonder about the point of it all. There is, for example, a moment in The Epic of Everest (see here) in  which a long-distance tracking shot follows George Mallory’s second attempt on the peak of Everest. And from which he never returned. His body was not found until decades later. There’s a similar mechanism at work in Herbert Ponting’s The Great White Silence (see here), although both are actual eyewitness film chronicles (although the latter makes use of model shots to show Scott’s mission to the South Pole). My point being, I suppose, that the films of Ponting and Noel were actual footage of the historical event they depicted… while Rouch had a tendency to stage the events he wanted to depict, as did Flaherty in this film, and so were labelled “ethnofiction”, you can on the one hand acknowledge the truths they want to document while at the same time wondering just how true those “truths” are… The problem with ethnofiction, in other words, is how reliable is the narrator? Is the film-make “faking” something he knows to be true? Or otherwise. Because making a point by emphasising one aspect of something is still faking it. Did the Aran Islanders really catch sharks as depicted? By the time the film was made, almost certainly not. It’s a slippery slope and I’ve no idea how you judge it. I’m a huge fan of the work of Aleksandr Sokurov, who melds fiction and fact in his films in a way which makes any distinction between the two meaningless. Francofonia is a straight-up mix between the two, but Confession pretends to be the diary of a real person who repeatedly quotes a work of fiction. It’s one reason why I love early documentaries, which are so explicitly fact, and the films of Sokurov which are so clearly extensions of fact… but I find it hard to deal with films which are distortions of fact from early decades…

Love, Károly Makk (1971, Hungary). I have a lot of time for Second Run. They’ve released some excellent films from around the world, including some by a favourite director of mine, who also happens to be Hungarian, Miklós Jancsó. I’ve not seen as many Hungarian films, despite Jancsó – eighteen, compared to fifty-six Polish films, for example – so I’m not as well informed on the country’s cinema, although I suspect Jancsó is less typical of it than Makk, likewise Béla Tarr… although did, perversely remind me of films by Polish directors and even one or two by Czech directors (especially Ucho, see here). In Love, a woman’s husband has been arrested as a political prisoner. Afraid this will adversely affect his ill mother, the wife pretends he has been sent to New York for work, and so make up letters from him which she reads to her mother in law. At various points in the story, the film uses flashbacks to explain what is being referenced in the letters. It’s mostly a two-hander, with the wife and mother in law, and the former is especially good. It comes across as very much a film of its time, but not in the sense it’s capturing a particular zeitgeist or period of fashion, but more as a snapshot of a regime and its impact on those on which the regime was imposed. The only revolution in the UK’s history that wasn’t ruthlessly put down was the Industrial Revolution, which tends to suggest “revolution” is the wrong word to describe it. (The English Civil War was hardly a revolution, given Oliver Cromwell was born into the aristocracy.) On the other hand, neither has the UK been occupied as Hungary was by the USSR. It makes for a disconnect, but it also makes it doubly important that such films are made available to a British audience. We  take our freedoms for granted because we cannot recognise when they are being curtailed. To be fair, tanks have appeared on the streets of British cities, and decades later it’s as if it never happened… But films like Love are important because they remind us that totalitarianism is a thing and has a personal cost and that we’re only a heartbeat away from it. I would sooner popular cinema depicted the perils of fascism instead of normalising it; I would sooner Hollywood spent more time depicting the perils of our current political climate instead of convincing everyone the world was a violent place in which might was right. We’ve known now for a couple of decades that US geopolitical dominance has been bad for planet Earth, but I maintain US cultural dominance, for just under a century, has probably been more damaging. Two hundred years from now, historians will probably look back at the twentieth-century as a noble social experiment, born in two world wars, which the US managed to comprehensively fuck up, while still managing to put twelve men on the Moon….

Princess Arete, Sunao Katabuchi (2001, Japan). If you were to wonder if a friend had lent me this particular film, you’d be right. It’s not my usual fare, any any means – and while I have enjoyed many anime films, the cartoon-ish nature of the art in this movie, as displayed on the Blu-ray cover, would normally put me off. Except, of course, the actual film looks nothing like that and much more like something made by Studio Ghibli. Well, perhaps a more simplified style than that of Studio Ghibli. Some of the backgrounds appear more painted, and indeed more detailed than the characters. It’s an effective technique, and one used in my favourite Ghibli film… But this film is not by them and it’s unfair to keep on mentioning them. Story-wise, Princess Arete presents itself as fairy tale that follows the typical template – a European one, that is, not Japanese. There’s a princess whose father keeps her hidden in the castle until a suitable suitor is found for her, but who sneaks out at night for adventure. But then a suit he can’t refuse, a wizard natch, comes along and takes the princess away. And it turns out the wizard is immortal but a prophecy says a princess called Arete will kill him. As Arete tries to escape her new prison, so she discovers more about her suitor and, of course, unwittingly sets in motion the chain of events which kill him and so render the prophecy true. Princess Arete, however, rings a few changes on the template. The title character has far more agency than is usual, and it is her direct actions which bring about the resolution. There’s also a Japanese slant -story-wise and visually – to some of the events in the last act of the film. The version I watched had only French language, or Japanese language with English subtitles, versions – and while the latter is more, well, correct as it’s a Japanese film, it apes European fairy tales and fantasies so well you expect it to be in English. I have zero problem with watching films in their original language with English subtitles, even when English dubs are available (like for many giallo films), I actually prefer it in fact, but with Princess Arete there’s a slight disconnect between what you see and what you hear. Even so, a good anime and worth seeing. Nice soundtrack too.

Shirley: Visions of Reality, Gustav Deutsch (2013, Austria). What this film is, is easy to describe. But what this has resulted in, is difficult to get a handle on. Simply put, Deutsch as taken thirteen of Edward Hopper’s paintings – but not, sadly, ‘Night Hawks’ – and from them stitched together a narrative about a woman called Shirley, from the early 1930s through to the late 1960s (although she does not appear to actually age during the 30 years). As a piece of art, it works amazingly well. Stephanie Cumming in the title role does little more than play a life model, but her voiceover provides all the drama that is necessary. The mise in scène artfully copies Hopper’s paintings: sometimes only momentarily, in other scenes for several minutes at a time. It looks gorgeous, despite the artificial simplicity of the set dressing. I rented this film and loved it so much I bought myself a Blu-ray copy (actually, it’s a dual format edition). It was worth it. I suspect the film will make my top five for the year. Highly recommended.

1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die count: 931

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Moving pictures 2017, #42

More hop-skip-and-jumping about the world through movies, including my first Mongolian one.  Only a single film from the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list, however, and it’s a Hollywood one, albeit from the 1940s. Noir, too.

Three Strange Loves, Ingmar Bergman (1949, Sweden). This is the second of a batch of Bergman DVDs I bought recently. It is, like many, perhaps most, of Bergman’s films, about marriage. In this one, Rut and Bertil are heading back to Sweden by train after visiting Italy. There are lots of flashbacks, recalling Rut’s affair with an army officer, who is probably the only character in a Bergman film to boast a moustache, and Bertil’s affair with a widow. The army officer forces Rut to have an abortion; the widow is in thrall to a sadistic psychiatrist, and then commits suicide. Perhaps Bermgan should have titled this one To Joy as well. Eventually, Bertil kills Rut during a fight… but it was only a dream. Scared by the dream, the two decide to try and save their marriage. I don’t actually remember much from this film – it was over a week ago I watched it – except one scene where Bertil and Rut’s train pulls into a station, and the train in the next track is travelling from Sweden, and the couple in the compartment alongside theirs is… the military officer and his wife. Which is just a little too coincidental to be believable. The film’s original title is Törst, which means “thirst”. Three Strange Loves, on the other hand, is a weirdly literal title, something for which Bergman’s films are, frankly, not known.

Joy, Chinguun Balkhjav (2016, Mongolia). I found this on Amazon Prime, which has, to be fair, on rare occasions thrown up some excellent new films from out-of-the-way places. Despite having found Ingmar Bergman’s To Joy (see here) far from joyful, I thought it worth chancing a movie with “joy” in the title – as the title, in fact – because I wanted to watch a film from Mongolia… And, what a surprise, it proved to be a complete downer as well. The film opens in the present, with a young woman called Az deciding it is time to return to her home village to lay some ghosts. The film slips in and out of the present and Az’s childhood, as it tells her story. Her father and mother were very happy, but then her mother died giving birth to her younger sister. Her father goes into business with a friend, selling local dairy products in the nearest town (which is several hours away from the village). But then he’s killed in an accident on a return trip. The family helping to look after the two young daughters delay telling Az, so she runs away to the town with her sister, to look for her father. While wandering around, they’re taken in by a man, who feeds them and puts them up – but Az leaves her sister in his care, while she continues to search. When she returns days later, the man has gone, and Az’s sister with him… (There’s nothing iffy here, he was simply being kind-hearted but knew nothing about the kids, as Az had not given her, or her sister’s, name.) Joy somehow manages to claw back a happy ending, which is quite an achievement given the litany of woe preceding it. Nevertheless, worth seeing.

The Postman Always Rings Twice*, Tay Garnett (1946, USA). This is another of the classic noir films on the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list, and I thought it more deserving of its place than the last one I watched, Kiss Me Deadly (see here). John Garfield plays a drifter who ends up at a diner on the outskirts of LA, working as a short-order cook – not because he wants to settle down, or because the job is especially well-paid, but because the owner’s much younger wife is Lana Turner. It doesn’t take long before the two are doing the rumpy-pumpy behind the husband’s back. Garfield persuades Turner to run away with him, but they don’t get very far. So they plot to kill the husband – which becomes urgent when the husband reveals he is going to sell the diner, and move to northern Canada to look after his paralysed sister. Unfortunately, the lovers’ first attempt – knocking the husband out when he’s having a shower, fails after a cat jumps on exposed wiring and shorts the electricity (probably the least plausible bit of the entire film). A later attempt, faking a car accident by pushing the car over a cliff, does the trick. The local DA suspects the two of murder, but cannot prove it. Shortly afterwards, Garfield and Turner are in  a car accident (not a staged one). Garfield survives; Turner doesn’t. And he’s promptly charged, and found guilty, of her murder. The film ends with him on Death Row, which is where the title comes in – and it’s a pretty tenuous justification for it, but never mind. I quite liked this one. The two leads were good, the plot did not rely on people behaving weirdly or unbelievable coincidences, and the whole was told with an economy that many films would do well to emulate.

The Wind that Shakes the Barley, Ken Loach (2006, Ireland). It’s a toss-up which was more entertaining: this film, or the reviews of it I looked at afterwards. Because The Wind that Shakes the Barley is about the the Irish War of Independence, and the English behaved like monsters during it. And it’s a Ken Loach film, and only an idiot would watch a Loach film not expecting it to take a political position. Which led to a lot of complaints the film was “anti-Brit”. Which means, what exactly? “My country, right or wrong”? Because that’s pernicious bullshit. Especially given the current foolishness about the British Empire – no, it was not a good thing, it pillaged and subjugated sovereign nations and that is never defensible; and no, it won’t suddenly spring into being in some woke form post-Brexit, not that those who think the empire was a good thing even fucking know what “woke” means, or even how to be progessive… But that’s a rant for another day. The Wind that Shakes the Barley follows two brothers, but mainly the one played by Cilian Murphy, who join the Irish Republican Army and end up fighting the Black and Tans and the Auxies, both of which groups, composed of WWI veterans desperate for work recruited in mainland UK, committed a series of atrocities against Irish civilians throughout the war. None of this is defensible – not their actions, nor their aim. So if the film comes across as anti-Brit, it’s perfectly justified. True, the film shows the war from the point of view of those who fought it, and suffered most during it, and the politicians behind the scenes were trying to desperately hard to reach a peaceful solution that kept most people happy. Well, except perhaps for Winston Churchill, who is such a hero in the UK he’s on the new £5 note, and yet he invented the Black and Tans, and many of his decisions throughout his career would have branded him a war criminal had they taken place in later decades of the twentieth century. Plus, he was establishment through and through. But, The Wind that Shakes the Barley… not the best Loach film I’ve seen so far – I thought Land and Freedom better, to be honest – but still worth seeing. Especially by people who think the British Empire was a good thing.

The Headless Woman, Lucrecia Martel (2008, Argentina). And here’s another film that many critics apparently had trouble with. The plot is relatively straightforward. A woman driving home from a friend’s hits something with her car. She stops, but doesn’t go and see what it was, seemingly in shock. Instead, she drives to hospital and has herself X-rayed. She spends a night in a nearby hotel. Then she carries on with her life as if nothing had happened. Her husband tries to persuade she must have run over a dog, but she suspects it may have been a child. Later, she visits the hospital, but they have no record of her being X-rayed. Nor does the hotel have her name down as a guest. There is no link between her and whatever happened on the road. However, what makes this film interesting, and which apparently turned off some critics, is that Martel chose not to film it as a fast-paced thriller, but as a slow, mostly plotless, drama, focusing chiefly on the main character’s daily life, with a small mystery wrapped around it. I actually think this approach made it a better movie. It made the opening incident more of a mystery, and the fact it was left unresolved only made it more interesting. The resolutely domestic focus of the film also made its mystery more intriguing. A good film, worth seeing.

Mai Mai Miracle, Sunao Katabuchi (2009, Japan). I pulled this out of the rental envelope, took one look at it, and immediately texted David Tallerman to ask if he’d stuck it on my rental list the last time we were at the pub. Because, while I like anime, I prefer the more realistic style, and the cartoon-ish-looking kids on the cover art of this DVD would not have prompted me to add it to my list myself. And then the film opened with a young girl in a field trying to imagine what the countryside looked like a thousand years before as her grandfather describes it to her, with that sort of over-compensating US schoolkid voice-over that cheerily and breezily explains the girl’s situation anf family… Oh, and the music on the soundtrack was really irritating… So I wasn’t all that impressed. But as I watched it, I found it growing on me. The central conceit – the little girl, Shinko, can see the past, ie, the area as it was 1000 years before, when it was the site of the capital of the province of Suō – didn’t really appeal, but once the film began to focus on Shinko’s friends, and her adventures with them, such as Kiiko, the new girl who’d just moved from the city, or the pond Shinko and her friends build for a goldfish… well, then, things started to really improve. David later admitted he’d thought I might enjoy the film because it resembled Studio Ghibli’s Only Yesterday, which is probably my favourite Ghibli… And yes, there are resemblances. But the things I like about Only Yesterday aren’t in Mai Mai Miracle, so it’s no surprise it took me a while to get into the film. There’s an earnestness to it that I find a bit off-putting, a sort of pushiness to the childhood it depicts… but that disappears within the first half hour and, if anything, the film gets pretty grim toward the end. Worth seeing.

1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die count: 877